Great Day in the Morning (1956) is an unusual film noir Western directed by Jacques Tourneur. The film is so willfully perverse that, perhaps, some critics might find a masterpiece lurking in all of the picture's confused gloom. I'm not sure myself whether the picture is some sort of idiosyncratic gem or, rather, a mess comprised of half-digested fragments from a once well-known novel -- often when novels are adapted to the screen, the filmmakers retain elements from the text that are striking, but that may not match the narrative distilled from the book in the process of translating it to the screen. In fact, movies adapted from novels are often characterized by episodes and, even, shadowy figures that don't fit into the film's plot, necessarily much simplified from the novel, but that have been retained from the source to show fidelity to the book. I have the sense that many of the curious, dead-end incidentals visible in this Western derive from motifs in the book that may have been meaningful in that context but not in the film as finally cut. (Tourneur is reported to have said that Great Day was a failure because the script deleted too many scenes in the novel integral to understanding the action.) As it stands, the movie is startling in many respects with a weirdly complex plot, although, ultimately, the picture is too diffuse to be entirely interesting -- the ending in particular is utterly bizarre in every respect and so unsatisfying that one suspects both irony and contempt for the audience in the film's last third.
The picture starts in a promising way with a odd vertical gunfight in a defile in the Colorado Rockies. A lone gunman battles Indians who are almost directly above him, runs out of shells, and is saved only by the intervention of three riders on the adjacent ridge. This sequence is effectively designed and packs a visceral punch. The landscapes are high Rockies -- meadows and deep valleys with spiky snow-capped peaks looming overhead. The film was shot in old Silverton and environs and the landscapes are splendid and, in fact, unusual for a Western -- we're used to deserts and high chaparral (because that landscape was endemic to southern California) and so it is refreshing to see a film that features real vistas of the great Rocky Mountains. (The effect is similar to Tourneur's greatest film, the idiosyncratic Canyon Passage, a movie set in the dense forests of Oregon -- a precursor to Altmans vision of the far west in McCabe and Mrs. Miller.) Almost immediately after being saved by the three riders, the hero, improbably named Owen Pentecost (Robert Stack) comes close to being shot by a fanatical pro-Union man among the horseman. The film is set in 1861 just before Fort Sumter and sectarian passions have reached a homicidal pitch. The film's rhetoric sometimes soars and the characters invective is equally inventive -- Southerners such as the hero (he's from South Carolina) are called "slave-beating, slave-dealing traitors" and throughout the film the issue of chattel slavery surfaces in a variety of odd, displaced subtexts: there is discussion "owning people' as employees or as lovers and the hero is threatened with "whipping." The hero's nemesis, Jumbo Means (played by an immense Falstaffian Raymond Burr) founds a tavern across from Pentecost's place, The Free State Saloon, featuring a big mural of an African slave being freed from his chains. The film's climax involves a mini-Civil war in the mining town in which a ragtag Union militia faces off against southern miners who are attempting to get their wagon loads of ore out of Colorado and into a slave state. (The sound track also features iterations of well-known Civil war songs.) The plot is almost ridiculously complex for 92 minutes movie. Pentecost is pursued by two women, a blonde "good girl" who has come to the mining camp to found a women's dress shop and a dark-haired "jezebel", the saloon-girl Boston. There is surprisingly explicit erotic byplay and the two women exert their wiles to seduce the reluctant, strangely ambivalent hero -- he seems to like rape: he kisses the women violently, overcoming their resistance, but when they begin to respond with real passion and affection, he stalks out of the room. (In an early scene, the saloon girl takes Pentecost to her room and the scene is set for a romantic interlude -- but when she turns away from him the cowboy passes out dead-drunk on the bed.) With Boston's collusion, Pentecost acquires the town's peculiar saloon, "The Circus" owned by the elephant fetishist, Jumbo Means -- the saloon girl who is Means' mistress has tired of the fat man and rigs a game of chance so that Pentecost wins the bar on a bet. Pentecost distributes mining claims to miners (Jumbo won these by cheating in poker games) and tells them that he will stake their claim so long as he is paid 50% of any earnings. When one of the miners defies Pentecost and refuses to pay his share, there is a gunfight and the hero guns the man down. This causes a riot in town since the shooting is viewed as a sectarian killing based on the hero's pro-Confederate background and the dead man' vehement Union persuasion. Several people get killed in the shooting which is about to escalate into an all out civil war in the town when the local priest, beloved by all, gets in between the warring factions and is shot to death -- this quashes the riot. The dead miner's son appears in town and Pentecost takes it upon himself to raise the boy -- he tells one of his girlfriends: "When he learns to shoot, he'll fill me full of lead and save me the trouble of committing suicide." There's some more gunfights and Pentecost is wounded. His adopted son learns that Pentecost killed his father but can't bring himself to shoot him. When Boston calls Jumbo "fat", he knifes her to death. (This summary leaves out lots of scenes about love, lust, and female erotic curiosity.)The confederate-sympathizers among the miners have filled the Circus Saloon's warehouse with gold. Pentecost, now more or less recovered, agrees to help the men get the contraband ore out of the State -- he does this for payment of $100,000. (Throughout the film, Pentecost is viewed as a pure mercenary -- he states that "I have undying loyalty to myself." Pentecost's mercenary attitude is just a bolder, less hypocritical kind of war profiteering than Jumbo Means uses to line his pockets. Characteristic of film noir, the hero suspects everyone's motive and the movie is brutally honest in its demonstration that war fever is generally just war profiteering -- Pentecost derisively says: "A man's got to be sentimental about a war.") The climax of the film involves Pentecost helping the miner's escape with their loot -- so that they can better finance the southern cause. This part of the film, about the last quarter, is shot in very, very dark day-for-night and can't really be clearly seen. (The denouement begins with dream-like gunfight obviously staged in a California studio --- this sets the tone of unreality for what follows.) At one point, hand grenades are used to create a diversion and I hoped that the flash of the bombs would show me what was happening in the dark -- but the bombs create huge clouds of black smoke and almost no light at all. Pentecost pilots a wagon as diversion and the Union militia pursues him until the wagon is destroyed. He, then, hides in a cave and we await a final shoot-out. But, instead, it turns out -- unbeknownst to us -- that there is another way into the cave and that one of Union sympathizers, in fact, an officer in the militia, gets the bead on Pentecost from behind. (Pentecost has been this man's rival for the hand of the blonde "good" girl). The Union soldier spares Pentecost and, even, gives him a canteen to take on his hike to place where he can catch a coach from Santa Fe. Pentecost promises to fight against the Union, but as a "private" and, thus, the film ends. The film's effect is that of a series of exquisitely staged episodes that are only very remotely stitched together by the theme of ongoing civil war -- that is, enmity among brothers. This theme seems so problematic that the film itself threatens to dissolve into a weird chaos of competing themes and issues. The dialogue is exceedingly brilliant -- almost annoying so: the film glories in the ultra-hardboiled rat-a-tat epigrams of a noir detective movie. The movie was written by Lesser Samuels -- he wrote another great noir, Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole. The dialogue is all a form of demotic poetry. The darkness in the end signifies that Tourneur doesn't know what to do with this material and can't figure out a way to convincingly stage some of the confrontations -- so he just plunges everything into dense blue gloom. This contrasts with the very clear design of the opening third of the film. Jumbo's "Circus" saloon has yellow walls covered with hieroglyphic-like figures: Tourneur achieves fascinating graphic effects by posing his characters against the hieroglyphs and glowing yellow field of the painted walls -- it's a proto-Godard effect that is very startling. Until the descent of darkness, the gun battles are effectively staged and the town is full of vivid minor characters, including one man named "Cannibal" -- "just because you eat somethin' wrong once, doesn't mean you should have to live with it all your life," the big beefy guy says. I assume "Cannibal" is based on the famous Alferd Packer, the Colorado cannibal who was condemned to hang because in the words of the Hinsdale County Judge, "there weren't but seven Dimmycrats in the county and Packer done ate five of 'em." (Packer was later pardoned for his misdeeds.)